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Home >Opinion >Why both Englishwallahs and Hindiwallahs are making a mountain out of a molehill

In the iconic Dev Anand-starrer Guide, Raju, who is now a vagrant, is taken by gullible villagers to be a mahatma and invited into their village. The village pundits, however, do not take kindly to this intrusion into their spiritual space. To expose Raju, they propose a simple test of comprehension. One of them reads out a Sanskrit shloka and asks Raju what it means.

Raju looks on unfazed and does reply, but in English (a language he picked up as a tourist guide). He then mockingly asks the pundits if they understood what he just said. At this turning of linguistic tables, the whole village (who, it must be noted, understood neither) bursts out laughing and the defeated priests slink away, firmly crowning Raju as the village mahatma.

This scene does a fantastic job of illustrating just how powerful English is, not as a prosaic means of communication, but as a mark of prestige and power. Indeed, there could be no better parallel than Sanskrit, and much like it, English acts almost brahmanically to exclude people from its charmed circle.

Indeed, a small illustration of the language’s awesome power was on display last week, as the English media went into apoplexy over what turns out to be a complete non-issue. The central government issued two circulars. One was related to social media, which read, “In keeping with the existing policy of the government regarding use of Hindi, government of India communication in ‘A’ category states i.e. Hindi speaking states must give equal importance to the use of Hindi in their social media platforms." The second one, farcically, announced a prize money of 2,000 to two babus for doing their official work mostly in Hindi.

Obviously, neither circular has any relevance to actual language use anywhere. If the central government’s cunning plan to trick everyone into using Hindi is by offering prizes worth 2,000, then well, best of luck. And if you are bothered with a Bihari bureaucrat posting tweets in Hindi and English, do note that Hindi states doing their official work in Hindi as well as English is a process that has continued for over half a century now. It is ridiculous to be fine with, say, laws being published in two languages but object over the same happening with something as trivial as tweets. So over the top was the reaction that Shashi Tharoor (who has, ironically, faced considerable interlocutory difficulties communicating in English while in government) wrote an entire piece detailing the problems non-Hindi bureaucrats would have reading file notings in Hindi, a completely imagined scenario. In reality, of course, the only issue a bureaucrat who’s not fluent in Hindi would face is not having a chance to win the 2,000 Hindi Prize, a not-so-grievous loss, I would imagine.

Apart from this reaction from the anglophone classes, the other aspect keeping the pot boiling was the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power, a party for which the establishment of Hindi was once a cause dear to its heart. While the fear is understandable, till now BJP has, it must be admitted, been rather blameless in this sphere. Not only was the note an unthinking assembly-line bureaucratic product, apparently originating with the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, Narendra Modi himself uses only English on social media.

Of course, all the actual Hindi chauvinism has been practised by the Congress in the first 20 years after independence. The Grand Old Party pushed Hindi as an exclusive national language and despotically prevented the teaching of Urdu in its birthplace of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. Sometimes, just sometimes, our well-meaning liberals tend to forget just how conservative the Congress Party actually was.

This episode also shows just how obtuse the Hindiwallahs are in pushing their case and why they, more than anyone else, end up harming the cause of Hindi.

By 1947, Hindi, Urdu or Hindustani (or whatever else you chose to call Delhi Khadi Boli) had, by and large, been established as the urban lingua franca of a large part of the subcontinent. This had been a process three or four centuries in the making, as the elite classes of Mughal India started to use earlier forms of Hindi-Urdu as a conversational language, even while retaining Persian as the official language.

Thus, in urban centres as far apart as Bijapur, Ahmedabad and Agra, by the 18th century, Hindi-Urdu was now the language of the street. By the 19th century, the language, using its standardized register of literary Urdu, even started to replace Persian as the official language. The British were using it in Uttar Pardesh and Punjab and during the Revolt of 1857, key communication, such as declarations and letters between rebels, was carried out in Urdu and not Persian.

At about the same time, when Parsis, the originator of modern theatre in India, wanted a language for their plays, they chose Urdu, simply because it was the only inter-regional language available. Its cultural successor, Bollywood, also chose Hindi-Urdu. Driven by commerce, art and a catholic approach (exactly the factors which drive English as a lingua franca today), Hindi-Urdu was doing rather well for itself.

In 1947, India gained independence and the Congress came to power—a positive move on most accounts other than for Hindi. In large parts of the Hindi heartland, the Congress was an extremely conservative, upper-caste body that now made the issue of Hindi into a battleground of ethnic chauvinism. They not only tried to force Hindi down the throats of non-Hindi speakers, they did it using a new Sanskritized register of the language, so far removed from everyday speech that it baffled even Hindi speakers.

Of course, the Hindiwallahs never understood that the ugly muscle of the government hurt, not helped, Hindi, instantly converting it from a utilitarian lingua franca to a symbol of oppression. It was a reverse version of Tom Sawyer’s painting-the-fence paradigm. For the first time in its history, Hindi faced a concerted opposition to its spread.

In the face of this resistance, the government backed down hurriedly. Free of government control, Hindi continued its slow but remarkable expansion. Hindi-Urdu, from being a local dialect of the Delhi region, is now understood, in some basic form, from Peshawar to Dhaka and from Srinagar to Bangalore. In fact, Hindi-Urdu is probably the third most understood language on the planet (including second language speakers) after Mandarin and English.

However, even this power fails to give it unquestioned primacy in the land of linguistic wonder that is India. Understandably, powerful non-Hindi linguistic traditions resist its dominance. However, in spite of this, Hindi has expanded extraordinarily and, unless Hindiwallahs don’t mess things up, this trend looks to continue.

Maybe a time will come sometime in the future when Hindi would have captured enough space to claim a natural right to be the sole official language (as well as the lingua franca it is now). However, that process is still under way and it remains to be seen what the final outcome will be. This historical process, though, has nothing to do with a Hindi Prize or a Bihari under secretary tweeting his day’s schedule—a fact that excitable English and Hindiwallahs need to understand.

Shoaib Daniyal writes on politics, history and linguistics and is based in Mumbai.

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